Thursday, January 29, 2009

John Martyn

The death of John Martyn (born Ian David McGreachy) this morning at the age of 60 will mostly go unnoticed in the US. It won't in Scotland nor here at this little blog. His health had suffered greatly over the past several years, but it is such a shame to see him go and it's a piece of personal heartbreak.

Martyn was the lesser-known of a circle of great musicians that included Richard Thompson (who played on Martyn's albums Bless the Weather and Solid Air), Eric Clapton, and Martyn's close friend Nick Drake.

He developed his own style of folk/blues/psychedelic/jazz. It became a unique sound - especially after his rather straightforward Scottish folk albums from the 1960s - when he turned his attention to a mix of psychedelia and jazz. He had a melancholy, usually soft voice - more a musical instrument itself than a conveyer of literal messages - that he would turn into growls in some of his more psychedelic blues moments. But he could also produce the gentlest of songs, like his lovely cover of "Singin' in the Rain."

That early 1970s period of jazz-psyche with Echoplex touches of electronic experimentation produced the best of his albums: Bless the Weather (1971); Solid Air (1973), the song of the album title a tribute to his friend and equally brilliant musician, Drake, who died tragically in 1974; Inside Out (1973); and Sunday's Child (1975). One World from 1977 is also a terrific album, but a move away from the psychedelic folk of the previous four (though Lee "Scratch" Perry was involved with the reggae-tinged One World!). That's the very best of his work and some of the finest music of the 1970s from the UK. The four earlier albums from the 1960s have great moments in their own right - and could stand alone as a superb British folk career - as do the several albums from the early 1980s. By the mid-1980s, however, his music became temporarily infected with some of that Pastorius-bass and Seagull-synth sound that turned the mainstream of that decade into musical mush.

I first picked up Inside Out working in a used record store two decades ago in undergrad college days. I didn't know anything about him at the time, but the record became one of my favorites and led to a collection of everything by him from 1967 to 1984. When I played his albums for others, the reaction usually wasn't one of much interest. I felt he was my secret, at least far away from Scotland in central Texas, and his moments of gentle beauty and other moments of Scottish-psyche trippiness became intimate, solipsistic corners of my musical landscape, rivaled in this dimension probably only by Arthur Lee. I have to thank my friend Eric for understanding and sending me the news of Martyn's death.

I finally saw Martyn in concert in a small-ish club in Paris in about 1990. I invited friends along. They didn't quite get him - again, not much interest. I think he was and is probably like that in general. Solid Air is now considered one of the greatest British albums of all time. But that characterization of any of his work seems so alien to Martyn's personality and music. The aim wasn't legendary status or fame or fortune. It was a kind of musical intimacy sung from deep in his beautiful soul. And I think those of us who feel that intimacy are truly lucky we've come across it. We'll miss John terribly.

[Thanks, Eric]

13 comments:

highlowbetween said...

Great post and sad news. I only know a few tracks here and there but have Stormbringer on my list.

Anonymous said...

I am personally devastated at this sad news. No one came even close to matching John musically. I will always treasure the night I saw him perform live at The Troubadour, playing and singing his wee heart out full of so very much solid air in a pair of farmer's overalls.
My prayer is that he has found some sort of peace and is getting busy in the next and better world.

helmut said...

It's strange how some deaths of people you don't know are taken almost personally. George Harrison's death was like this for me, as is John's.

Anonymous said...

I was born and bred in North America, and the news of John Martyn's death hit me HARD. John Martyn's music has been with me since I was in university and first heard STORMBRINGER. That was decades ago...

Since then, I have followed Martyn's career and artistic output more than any other contemporary artist's. Martyn kept growing and exploring with every new release. In the last decade of his life, he released some of his most beautiful music ever. GLASGOW WALKER, ON THE COBBLES, and CHURCH WITH ONE BELL stand right beside SOLID AIR and ONE WORLD in my humble opinion.

I am only four years younger than John Martyn, but his music has served as a beacon of comfort and joy for me my entire adult life. Losing John is, indeed, like losing a brother. It's been a couple of days now, and I am still reeling from the news of Martyn's death.

People like John Martyn literally make me pray that there is a heaven. At least if there's a heaven, I have a fighting chance of hearing John Martyn again.

Anonymous said...

Definately not going unnoticed in the US. I feel like part of my life was taken away since I heard the news. Like others have said, he wasn't for the mainstream, but he was soo good. I wish he could have seen all these posts, tho...

helmut said...

Yeah, I agree, some his later work is really great. The only blip he had in his career was the late 80s work and there's still some songs on those albums that are also great. Listening yesterday to Solid Air and Inside Out, I still think that the 70s works are the best if only because the experimentation in the sound makes them enduring, fresh, contemporary in addition to intimate. But... that's a quibbling point, really.

Oh, I'm not surprised that John has lots of fans in the US. But I am surprised that places like the NY Times ran obituaries, and that several blogs have taken notice.

California said...

I was visiting London in 1988 around the time of my birthday, and as a gift friends took me and my wife to see John Martyn at Sadler's Wells. We had never heard of him. At one point he played a very loud rock-like tune while strutting across the stage. Following the applause someone shouted out, "Martyn, you've sold out!" Looking surprised he came back, "Really? I thought there were some seats left."

He leaves an incredible body of work, and it's good to know that he was recognized in Britain with an OBE on this year's honors list.

jean said...

Yes, I was kind of surprised too, the first I heard of his death was his name appearing on "top news stories" on my search engine. As soon as I saw his name, I just knew something was wrong. I hadn't been listening to him much in the recent years, but sometimes feeling nostalgic for the 70s, I put him on. I have to learn about some of his more recent albums. I'm not much of a jazz fan, so I listened to the folky stuff back then, but in the last couple of days I've watched him doing more recent stuff on Youtube and it was very touching.

Anonymous said...

I saw John Martyn many times and all those gigs were great so i count myself lucky. Early solo sets at Southampton Univ Union guitar and tape delay quite wonderful. Crowning moments for me were with a full band at a free gig in the mid 80’s on the South Bank doing the gloriously ironic ‘I am John Wayne’ amongst other favourites. I regard his version of ‘Over the Rainbow’ off the evidently underrated ‘Sapphire’ LP as the most sublime and ‘ that’s where you’ll find me (him)’. Obviously you can’t please everybody all the time but i can still get much pleasure from the old tapes and it goes beyond nostalgia. alanjc

Anonymous said...

better than good..john will live forever thru ' his musical legacy, anyone that appreciates him is blessed by him..thankyou john martyn

shiveringgoat said...

I am also saddened by this, although I am surprised he lived this long considering all the magic monkey juice he scoffed! - but what a great musician, for me its the 70’s albums that shine the most. I was lucky to meet him in the 90’s and saw him severel times from 1988-1997, then I moved to London and didn’t catch him again until 2001 at Hackney Ocean with Danny Thompson they played amazing BUT I was so shocked how different he looked - it was only 5 years before that I saw him, he looked like a big bad drunk, put on weight and a shaved head - I believe he was beaten badly in New York around 2000 with a baseball bat -so sad. The music was great though and anyone here wanting to discover his music should start with Solid Air and all the 70’s albums until Grace & Danger. Sorry after this even though I have all his music it just doesn’t cut it for me, his real genius was simple song-writing gently embellished with a few echo effects - like ’Small Hours’ from ’One World’. My favourite track is ’Ways To Cry’. Here is a true funny story. Whenever I saw him play in the north of England around 1990 he was desperate to create a big band sound - so he would mostly perform with 4 piece electric band which upset all the older hippies that would come out to hear him play his 70’s stuff on acoustic which he didn’t want to play as he wanted to move on. In between the first 5 numbers that were all new material the hippies at Leeds Irish Centre would shout for all his 70’s stuff and you could see him getting fed up, anyway after 5 songs I felt sorry for him stuck between wanting to sing new songs and a large part of the audience that wanted old. So in between the next song I shouted out as loud as I could ’PLAY SOME ELVIS!’ - John Martyn turn round to his band and they played 32 bars of ’Hound Dog’ with him singing it ending on a big crescendo - the place erupted with laughter and I helped diffuse the tension and in a nice way told the hippied to ******** Off!!!...he did play some older tracks towards the end to keep them happy...this is a true story and me and my friend that were there laugh to this day about it.There is a good new book out about his life by John Neil Munro that you can get cheap on Amazon worth a read. RIP John your music was beautiful and you touched so many people. Here is a picture of me and him from 1989 when I got worse for wear with him.http://farm4.static.flickr.com/3299/3297719334_354d6a2db0_o.jpg
It was me that put 'Small Hours' on You Tube Too CATCH IT! :):):):

jenhargis said...

I had a friend with whom I worked at a used record store in the late 80's who turned me on to John Martyn. I have never been able to find much by him, though I did get my hands on some sheet music for "May You Never".

I am only just finding out about his death, having not been to the Phron lately, but I am grieved.

I was very annoyed with Robert Plant's "Darkness, Darkness" getting airplay when Martyn's was so much better.

Thanks, Helmut, for playing him for me all those years ago!

David Asher said...

I saw John open for Eric Clapton in 1978 at Cobo hall in Detroit. I've been a fan ever since. Maybe the US media did not cover his death in a way befitting a giant of his stature. However, rest assured that those of us in the States who know good music are still grieving.